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Health Clubs for Everybody!

[whitespace] Michelle and Jason Team Effort: Michelle and Jason pump it up at Gold's Gym.

Hank Hyena works out at 20 fitness clubs in one week and discovers that there's a health club for just about anyone

YIKES! There's a slob in my mirror--a belly-hanging-over-the-belt, porridge-thighed geek. Flabby ass hanging down like an elephant's. "Take me to a gym!" begs my blubber bod. "Before I explode with Halloween treats, Thanksgiving gobbler, Christmas eggnog and ham. I gotta get trim, tone, buff and tough!"

Ripping open the Yellow Pages, my digits scamper to "Health Clubs"--oh no! Decisions, decisions. Fitness facilities abound in the city--which one's perfect for my needs? How do I choose? I want to spend my dollars sweating in the sweetest spot.

In one week I trekked to 20 different gyms--I worked out, I inspected equipment, I interrogated trainers, I frowned at colors, I checked out the clientele. What I discovered was: There's a health club for everybody. Straight, gay, single, family, quiet, loud, butch, femme, earthy, industrial, gregarious, agoraphobic--whatever your taste is or whatever you are, there's a workout place for you.

Below I've listed my highly opinionated capsule analyses, with locations and cost estimates included.


Pilates focuses on breath, clarity of thought
and precision of movement.

Where to enjoy the physical and spiritual benefits
of yoga without killing yourself.


24-Hour Fitness
1645 Bryant St, 415/437-4188
Price: $360/year during discount drives

The perfect gym for Generation-X shopping-mall rats. Tacky decor with Southwest sandstone and turquoise colors, aggressive sales reps in black-and-purple uniforms, shrill rock/disco music, a hyper-hygienic decree that says you must carry a towel with you at all times and locker-room TVs eternally tuned to Sports Channel or Jerry Springer.

There are mirrors everywhere and bold signs advertising "Accelerated Results" if you hire a personal trainer or buy supplementary protein. There's so much stimulus here, you're exhausted when you get to the furiously pedaled and stepped aerobic machines, the vast but often crowded weight room or the swimming pool, stuffed to the gills like a trout farm.

The clientele looks young, straight, commuting, conservative and suburban. Can't I say anything nice? OK--the Jacuzzi is oddly populated by hairy heavy old white men and voluptuous brown women--like Gauguin in Tahiti. Maybe I'll retire here.

My lovely friend Federica says, "I just go to the yoga classes and ignore everything else ... I told my friend George that he should join to meet all the young women, but he says, 'No, it's incredibly ugly--the color and lighting are wrong.' "

When straight guys complain about things like that, you know it's terrible.

Mission Cliffs
2295 Harrison St, 415/550-0515
Price: $600-$700/year

The feature fun here is the wall of enormous faux cliffs. With chalk on your hands and rubber elf slippers on your feet you can get squirrelly--scampering or struggling upward, aided only by the pimple outcroppings and the lifeline rope to your belaying buddy. There are weights as well, and a "bouldering" area where you can crawl solo at low altitudes.

The music here is soft country rock to get you into that Sierra mood, and the temperature is frigid--it's so cold cute that staff member Jolie is wearing her homemade faux fur hat. She says the clientele consists of "professionals, computer programmers and doctors in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They like the problem-solving aspect of climbing--it's like vertical chess."

No glossy Spandex here, just scruffy shorts and sweatshirts. The nerd-butch climbers have great bodies--arms like orangutans, legs like goats, shoulders like Half Dome and tummies like El Capitan, with gobs of sexy gear hanging off their low-slung climbing belts. Ripped hippies with high-powered jobs.

I'd join in an instant, except--I'm afraid of heights.

Gold's Gym
Ninth & Brannan Sts, 415/552-4653
Price: $405/year

The tanned, tank-topped muscular clientele makes me feel like a white rat slinking around a pirate ship. Tall mirrors, loud music and the giant neon Gold's insignia looming above add to the intimidation. I'm trapped in the Temple of Brawn, surrounded by the Great Humungi.

There are butch brutish bodies here, plus beautiful black guys with shaved heads and blonde babes with more definition than Webster's. I'm the puniest human here, so I hate it, but everyone else seems happy.

I ask Virginia, the runner-up puniest, what the benefits are. She says, "I like the people who work here, the trainers and everyone in the cafe kitchen. I love my cycling class taught by Sherman. And there's lots of equipment here so I never have to wait ... Oh dear, I hope everyone doesn't hear this and join!"

Don't worry, I won't.

Jozie Girl Curl: Jozie gets ripped.

International Center Health Club
50 Oak St, 415/626-0255
Price: $400/year

No music here, just ominous buzzes in the electric wires and groans in the rust-clogged pipes. This is San Francisco's most decrepit gym--the locker rooms suggest 1930s Rumania, the weight machines look like they were invented by Leonardo da Vinci, the pool could have floated a gouty Caesar.

Aesthetics have been abandoned here, but ancient history survives--dust, mold and odors linger from a bygone era. In this gym, once owned by the Catholic Church, you can easily imagine a preteen Dan White pummeling the already tattered punching bags in the basement. I wouldn't go near the weight machines--they look like booby traps. Racquetball, basketball and badminton are intriguing possibilities, though.

Sara at the desk says the clientele is "mostly a 40 and older crowd, and mostly men." I'm ready to condemn the place as a total loss, but then a pretty brunette with great teeth walks by, smiling, and asks me, "How are you?"

"Fine!" I brighten up, because I realize that my body's gross at Gold's Gym, but here I could be a sex symbol.

World Gym
290 De Haro, 415/703-9650
Price: $399/year

Black tank tops, shaved heads and big biceps here, with bare midriffs and tight shorts on the muscular women. It's a studly joint, with the same pirate atmosphere as Gold's: tattoos and piercings, cut physiques, loud disco and butch architecture.

World's new push is Yoga World--28 classes weekly. I spy on the contortionists: all women. Very pretty. Don't straight guys know they're here?

Cathedral Hill Plaza Athletic Club
1333 Gough St, 415/346-3868
Price: $700/year

A secret miracle hides on "Holy Hill"--this facility has two pristine tennis courts, Cybex machines, yoga, tai chi and aerobics classes and an immaculate pool with free shampoo and conditioner in the locker rooms.

The local community (senior-citizen centers like SF Towers) exercises here, so the average age is late 40s. But there are young people too, like the blonde, bathing-suited Colleen Darling, a pool program instructor. "I enjoy being here because my work is play," she smiles.

The staff and client vibe is so friendly and fresh-faced, I fear they're all Christians. Even if they were, you'd still send your parents: massage, physical therapy, "Breathing and Stretching" classes and free parking are available, plus discounts for anyone over 60. If you can't wait that long, it's still a good deal.

Powerhouse Gym
1300 Sutter St, 415/440-1800
Price: $278/year--this bargain deal ends soon!

Why do I like this place? Is it the low price? Or the cool, well-designed industrial interior with spray-painted landscapes and faux rust? Or the bright sunlit spaciousness with oodles of free weights and a gorgeous aerobics studio?

Or is it the clientele? A hip but casual funky-sweatshirt mix? Rachel Porter, a pretty Powerhouser sporting a nose ring, black eyeliner and a sexy tongue stub, says, "It's very laid-back here, not a bunch of Spandex and neon. It's about half-and-half gay and straight with a sizable amount of women--I love it!"

Kick boxing, power boxing and spinning (aerobic cycling) classes are popular here. If you're seeking a bargain with an edgy vibe, this is it.

Federal Fitness Center
450 Golden Gate, 415/252-7300
Price: $600/year

Primarily for government employees in the Federal Building, but also available to the community. If you're not afraid of fertilizer bombs, if you like being searched on the way in and if the availability of armed guards thrills you--this is the place. The vast cozy lounge has an excellent magazine assortment and a Ping-Pong table! Hooray! My favorite game.

Smooth and efficient Cybex machines and a glamorous aerobics studio with Fitballs, exercycles, physioballs, jump ropes and punching bags. Special "San Francisco treats" are the tastefully fauxed locker rooms and the Pilates, yoga and tai chi classes.

Robyn, the lovely director, defines the clientele as "lots of federal judges, FBI agents and U.S. attorneys ... evenly split between men and women, with a wide variety of ages."

I watch a nerd with a terrible haircut do consecutive pull-ups for about 15 minutes--gotta be CIA.

pool Bathing Beaucoup: The pool at Nikko's Spa is an aquatic oasis, serenity guaranteed.

Nikko's Spa and Fitness Center
222 Mason St, 415/394-1153
Price: $900/year

This is the princess, the pearl, the most relaxing and beautiful fitness center I visited. The vivacious manager--Jane Stephens--was also the only manager with enough acumen to give me two complimentary passes.

Imagine this: you stride past the fountains and sculpture of the Nikko Hotel's elegant lobby, you elevate yourself to the fifth floor and then ... oh no! You forgot your workout togs! Don't fret--Nikko's provides you with a towel and all the gym clothes you want, even swim trunks and goggles!

You pump yourself now, on the new Cybex machines. Then you walk outside on the roof past the Zen rock gardens to the atrium (glass pyramid), where you swim in a pool setting so magnificently photogenic it's frequently used by modeling agencies. Finally, you relax in the kamuburo--a Japanese-designed room where wooden planks are surrounded by hot pebbles. Serenity guaranteed.

The eclectic clientele includes hotel guests aged 18 to 80. I saw a Swissair pilot, a Korean Air stewardess and a pediatrician conventioneer. Plus, there's a loyal, dynamic and diverse coterie of 250 local members: sushi chefs, Macy's designers, Chronicle editors, et al.

"We know our regular members by their first name," Jane smiles. "We're low-key, more intimate--there's a huge community of people who consistently rejoin our club."

Jacuzzi, juice bar, sun decks, coffee and food cart in the morning--I wish I had a hundred complimentary passes.

Club One
350 Third St, 415/512-1010
Price: I never got a straight answer. Apparently, the membership fee varies depending on your employer and health benefits. If you don't have these "perks" that come with a corporate job, it's $145 to register and $78 per month.

A cute, cozy outlet in the local eight-gym corporation. Skylights, chrome, a slender pool, wide televisions, glamorous babes and dudes with excellent abs. Located a block from Yerba Buena, it attracts attorneys, doctors, software and design engineers and Pac Bell employees.

The men's locker is floral-scented. The exquisitely beautiful promo model Alex is one of their fitness trainers. Everything's clean, the music is soft.

But really, I don't like it.

The corporate platitudes and evasiveness of the manager annoyed me: "Our overall philosophy is service ... We're not the meat market that other gyms are ... We're a cross-section club for anyone and everyone."

The manager says the ratio is 60 percent women, but why believe him? He's as smarmy as a politician.

The San Francisco Bay Club
150 Greenwich, 415/433-2200
Price: $1,200 membership, $100+/month

This staid aristocrat of local gyms is immense (three-fourths of a block) but restrained, with an older clientele of "lawyers, doctors, business owners and stock exchange brokers," reports Milla, the facility director. Everything's efficient; there's even a shuttle bus that circles the Financial District every 15-30 minutes.

Is it a social club? Not exactly. There are TGIF parties with snacks and music quartets, but the principal activity seems to be "high-end business deals." Oatmeal, pasta and baked goods are cooked in the in-house kitchen and served in a spacious cafe area, where the "independents" (i.e., independently wealthy) loiter.

This is Rec Eden: two pools (one warm, one cool), seven squash courts, a sun deck, steam rooms, sauna, Jacuzzi, massage, orchids in the lobby, a stretching room, facials, manicurists, shoe shines--every gimmick the wealthy need to stay healthy and satisfied.

Netpulse aerobics machines offer stock updates and frequent-flier miles, there are classes in French, Italian and Spanish, there's a conference room and, of course, no one under 18 is allowed: "The business class doesn't want to see kids; this is their sanctuary from children."

Gays and lesbians? "No way to tell," Milla reports. "People here aren't obvious." If you want to wheel and deal with the solemn magnates, you're home.

boxing Power Up: Kick boxing and power boxing offer antidotes to stress.

Marina Fitness Club
3333 Fillmore St, 415/563-3333
Price: $500/year

"This is definitely a straight club," director Andrea says. "There's slightly more women here, most are single professionals, 25 to 50 is the normal age, and the majority are single."

Is it like a pick-up bar, with aerobics instead of alcohol? "People meet a lot of people through health clubs," she admits. Perhaps on the sun deck or at the Christmas party or in the popular yoga, Flex, tae kwon do, boxing or spinning classes. Perfect for anybody who seeks the companionship of "Marina types."

Gorilla Sports
2450 Sutter St, 415/474-2699
Price: $600/year

"This isn't a meat market," the sales rep tells me. "There's no frills here; people are just here to sweat." But hey, if you're a young single hetero male, the ratio here looks delicious: 70 percent women, 85 percent under 30, 75 percent hetero. Gawkers beware, though. The gals here will clock you--boxing and kick boxing are the most popular classes, and there's Golden Gloves training, for women.

I peep into the spinning class--10 fierce babes are sweating voluminously, the music is adrenaline rock and ... no men in sight. "In my boxing class this morning," the sales rep says, "there were 10 women and two guys."

"Pretty nice, huh?" I inquire.

He grins.

3119 Vicente, 415/753-5177
Price: $300/year

Tiny neighborhood gym with older equipment. Soft music, sunny back patio and inexpensive tanning booths. Clientele? On a Tuesday afternoon, I see three thick brutes, one senior gentleman and two beautiful 20-ish women. That's the average ratio, claims a leggy German-born staff member; she adds, "People don't do fashion show here, and nobody looks at them."

Cole Valley Fitness
957 Cole St, 415/665-3330
Price: $500/year

Low music and high sunlight abound in this casual neighborhood gym. Slightly older (35+) professional crowd. Trainer Nancy says, "We pay attention to ambiance--look at this lovely flower arrangement!" She's right: there are no jarring colors; it's all pleasant and mild. People work out quietly, then leave quietly.

But ... it's not sexy, either. I wouldn't go out of my way to get here.

Casey Wells Bass Buff Boy: Personal trainer Casey Wells Bass shows off those hunky muscles.

Pinnacle Health & Fitness
61 New Montgomery, 415/543-1110
Price: $500/year

There's a slick and sterile corporate feeling to this flagship of the six local Pinnacles (who also own the Gorillas). I was hoping some sexy, skinny, smoking, suicidal dressed-in-black Academy of Arts students from next door would slink in, but no ...

The general manager boasts that GAP and Charles Schwab employees work out here--gee, that's thrilling! There's a 50-50 gender split, and the clientele is "upwardly mobile young people who are very involved in their careers and want to keep their energy up."

If I had to say something nice (Ouch! It hurts!), I'd mention "the great massage and yoga programs." OK, that's enough. "Our hours revolve around the financial clock ... We're a full-service club ... Our floor tech is ongoing." Puke! I hate corpo-gabble!

Pinnacles will survive my nasty diagnosis, because it was recently purchased by Bally's Fitness, the East Coat megaoctopus. "We have very deep pockets behind us now," the GM smirks.

Corporate Androids--sign up here!

Fitness USA Supercenter
Stonestown Mall, 415/681-2500
Price: $500/year (massive discounts for long-term members)

The patriotic name is ghastly, isn't it? So, is the decor--red, white and blue stripes everywhere, even on the carpet. Is this Captain America's gym?

I was ready to loathe this place, but the staff and clientele (90 percent Asian) is young, friendly and very cute! There's a bubbling Jacuzzi and the music is soft; the place is spotless, and everyone's merrily socializing. Manager Rainelda Meafua says, "In the morning there's lots of older people, but mostly it's San Francisco State University students ... There's a 'Ladies Only' section because ... we get shy, OK? There's a full aerobics schedule, and kids that are 12 years old or older can join, too."

I entered scowling, but I left completely charmed. Kids are having more fun here than at any other gym I visited, and--I know I said this already, but--they're so pretty!

YMCA Embarcadero
169 Steuart St, 415/957-9622
Price: $600/year, but discounts available

"Everybody's welcome at the Y," says Austin Sherwood, director of marketing and sales. It's a cliché, but it's true. The YMCA offers financial assistance to the needy, there's an alternative high school in the basement and it's the only SF gym that welcomes young children.

A stroll through the enormous complex reveals harmony and diversity everywhere: death-rock teens on the treadmills, senior citizens doing sit-ups, children's murals and black and white coeds playing volleyball together. Plus, it's glamorous--the third-floor aerobics area provides such a breathtaking view of the Bay Bridge, you might even forget you're doing something stupid, like stationary skiing.

"Our clientele is eclectic," Austin says. "From teens to CEOs ... this is a low-pressure, no-attitude, no-neon kind of place." Male-to-female ratio is nearly 50-50, the equipment is state-of-the-art and there are 130 classes, two swimming pools, a running track and a sun deck.

This is definitely the gym for parents, and is that Village People song still true?

My neighbor Brad joined "to meet all the cute executives," and I got more eye contact here in five minutes than I did at Gold's and World in an hour.

Market Street Gym
2301 Market St, 415/626-4488
Price: $449/year

Cool and smart gay testosterone energy. My lesbian friend Thea is a member, and she says, "Everybody's so nice ... all these muscle-boys take yoga classes, too!"

I'm definitely the worst-dressed fellow in there. Plus, I'm one of the weakest, and perhaps the only hetero. I like the stretching room, though; there are lots of bright red and blue fitballs I can do my silly sit-ups on.

Pacific Heights Health Club
2358 Pine St, 415/563-6694
Price: $650/year

I feared the worst here, my first and only stop in the tree-lined neighborhood nicknamed "Specific Whites." My prejudice was shattered, though, by the likable club manager--"Hi, I'm DJ"--who escorted me into a peaceful wood-and-fern chamber with an enormous retractable skylight.

The Jacuzzi is inviting, the leather lounge couches are deliriously comfortable, there's not an iota of dust ... but there's something weird here: naked men by the weight machines, a locker "room" with no walls! Startled, I glance around--no women! That's right--this is a "gender-segregated" spa, like the ancient Greco-Roman baths. "Women like not being gawked at," DJ says. "Men like it, too."

The clientele is primarily local professionals, business people and independents. "People relax and get to know each other," DJ says. "It serves as a social club ... We know 90 percent of the clientele by their first name." My advice? Send your wealthy relatives! But me? I don't gawk, but I like to discreetly glance.

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From the November 16-29, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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